By the time Jerry Wolman, who died in 2013 at the age of 86, was in his mid-30s he had made a small fortune building apartments in the Washington area. Then he bought the Philadelphia Eagles in 1964, founded the Flyers and built the Spectrum. His empire crashed in 1967, when two of his employees threw him under the bus, costing him his larger fortune, business reputation and team. Anyone else would have been bitter, but in this 2010 interview he seemed to be on top of the world
By Theodore N. Beitchman
Divorce can be a messy business.
People get married or go into business together, and at first all seems right with the world.
Then the bloom fades and one or all of the Seven Deadly Sins rear their ugly head:
Greed. Pride. Envy. Gluttony. Lust. Anger. Sloth.
The latest high-profile example is taking place in Los Angeles, where Jamie McCourt is arguing that she and her estranged husband Frank own the Dodgers together, and that she should get half of the value when the team is sold. Since 2004 Frank has run the Dodgers like a second-rate business in a third-rate town. The Lakers now own L. A., and no matter how the McCourts’ divorce proceeding ends and who buys the team, it will be a long, hard slog for the Dodgers to win it back.
Let’s turn back the clock to October 18, 1967.
A divorce proceeding in a conference room in the Philadelphia Eagles offices leads to the owner losing his fortune, his business reputation and ultimately his prized football team.
It also launches the sports business career of the team’s vice president, who was given a job as a favor to his father, the owner’s close friend. The owner had also GIVEN the vice president 7% equity in the team and an $83,000 down payment on a Main Line manse.
As a result of the divorce, the Eagles spiral into a period of mediocrity that is not reversed for more than a decade.
And 43 years later the facts are as stubborn as ever.
The former vice president is wildly wealthy, a pillar of Philly society, an avatar of Ayn Rand’s theories, a generous donor to a multitude of causes, and a master of the local sports universe. Though it does seem as if he has been carrying a grudge for all these years.
While the former owner is comfortable financially, but about 2,000 times less than he could have been if the son of his close friend and another employee hadn’t betrayed his loyalty 43 years ago. He is happily living in the Washington suburbs, has a nearly constant smile on his face, and has virtually nothing negative to say about anyone.
Any objective observer would say he should be the one with the grudge.
JERRY WOLMAN is lunching in Baltimore’s Capital Grille, and he looks like a million dollars. Make that $36 million, which is what he was worth when he bought the Eagles for $5.5 million in 1964.
Only the lines in his face belie his age — 83 is the new 63 — and the full head of gun-metal grey hair, crisply pressed mauve checked button down shirt and the ubiquitous smile make him look like one of the happiest people in the world.
He has motored to Baltimore from his home in Potomac, Md., to talk about a book, ironically titles “Jerry Wolman: The World’s Richest Man,” written about him by the Philly father-son team of Richard and Joseph Bockol, which was inspired by his two children and nine grandchildren who had only heard bits and pieces about his remarkable life.
Wolman has been accompanied to lunch by Howard Steinhardt, his partner in 3rd and Long Productions, which produced the book and is attempting to turn it into a movie.
“So, who do you want to play you in the movie?” Wolman is asked.
“I don’t know, but I want to play all the love scenes,” he says with a gleam in his eye.
Love is one of the enduring themes in Jerry Wolman’s life.
Born in 1927 in Shenandoah, Pa., then a town of 25,000 people with 100 Jewish families in coal country about 100 miles northwest of Philly, Wolman was one of nine children in an Orthodox house. He joined the Merchant Marines during World War II, returned home and after trying several business ventures he decided it was time to move to a bigger city where it would be easier to make a living.
Unable to settle on a destination, he and his wife Anne started driving and headed for the city to which the first hitchhiker they picked up was going, Washington, D.C.
Almost penniless, he found a job at a wallpaper and paint company and a few years later formed a company to paint buildings. He became fascinated with construction and building.
“I made $40,000, more money than I had seen in my entire life,” he says, and he used those profits to bring his parents to D.C.
“Lenders began looking for me, instead of me looking for them,” he recalls in the book. In the 1950s he built in nearby Silver Spring, Md., and the Presidential Building at 1111 Pennsylvania Ave., built under President John F. Kennedy’s Pennsylvania Avenue redevelopment plan.
“It’s the White House,” Wolman’s secretary yelled one day in 1962. Wolman rolled his eyes, assuming it was a joke, and yelled back, “Tell them I can’t do anything about the Berlin Wall.”
“Answer the phone,” the secretary insisted with some attitude.
Wolman soon realized this was no joke.
“The President would like to meet with you,” JFK’s secretary said.
Wolman hustled over to the White House, where Kennedy told him about his idea to beautify Pennsylvania Avenue between Capitol Hill and the White House. He had noticed its dilapidated condition during his Inaugural Parade, and he directed a young assistant secretary of labor, Daniel Patrick Moynihan, to honcho the project.
Kennedy asked Wolman to surrender 50 feet of the 1111 Pennsylvania Avenue building’s footprint and frontage to comply with his program. Wolman quickly computed that his bottom line would take a hit, but he loyally said, “Mister President, your wish is my command.”
By 1963, the kid from coal country was lighting up the sky as a developer. Jerry Wolman Construction Co. had built more than 30,000 apartment units and 6 million square feet of office space. Jerry and Anne weren’t regulars on the rarified Washington social scene, but they had become solid and generous members of the local Jewish community.
One of Wolman’s hangouts was Duke Zeibert’s, the hottest restaurant/hangout in town. The Connecticut and L spot was owned by an irascible character of the same name, who took a liking to anyone who was successful, especially if they were Jewish and/or involved in Duke’s passions.
“I love sports and politics,” Duke told me one day in 1977, “and I don’t mind making other people wait when a pol or sports regular comes in.”
For Duke, Wolman was a three-fer: Jewish, a sports fan and very successful. He often lunched with attorney Edward Bennett Williams, Washington Post columnist Shirley Povich and a young radio commentator named Larry King. The common thread was sports, and they were often joined by Washington Daily News sports columnist Morris Siegel.
One day in 1963 at Duke’s, Siegel called Wolman over and passed along information that would change his life.
Siegel was an impish Atlanta native who smoked constantly, which Wolman didn’t mind because he also smoked (think “Mad Men”). Siegel leaned in and whispered:
“Have I got news for you. This is strictly confidential, but my sources tell me it’s true blue. I heard the Eagles are for sale.”
You could have knocked Wolman over with a feather.
When he was a kid in Shenandoah in the 1940s, Wolman and his best buddy Johnny Robel would hitchhike the 100 miles to Eagles games at Philly’s Municipal Stadium and Shibe Park, wait outside in the cold and get in free for the second half. The Birds weren’t very good in those days, but Jerry and Johnny loved them.
And now he saw a chance to buy the team he had loved all of his life.
THE PHILLY SPORTS LANDSCAPE in 1963 was barren. Three years after winning the NFL championship, the Eagles had fallen to 2-10-2, the Phillies had lost 23 straight games in 1961 and the 76ers had just been moved from Syracuse to fill the void the Warriors had left when they moved to San Francisco.
Philly sports needed a kick in the pants.
Wolman didn’t know Philly very well but he hustled up from Washington the day after Mo Siegel’s tip and headed straight to Old Original Bookbinder’s, the rough equivalent of Duke Zeibert’s. John Taxin, the avuncular owner of Bookie’s, came out to meet Wolman, and after some pleasant badinage about sports and real estate, Taxin seemed to accept Wolman business bona fides. Taxin agreed to help Wolman, a fellow Jew, get a real shot at buying the Birds.
Since 1949, the Eagles had been owned by a syndicate known as the 100 Brothers, mostly Irish and each of whom paid $3,000 for 1 percent of the team. By 1963, 65 Brothers remained as Wolman approached crusty, old Fire Commissioner Frank McNamee, who was in effect the team’s managing partner.
McNamee agreed to meet Wolman at Taxin’s request, but when the spit-and-polished Wolman came to visit McNamee in a local fire station the chief was unimpressed.
“Frank thought I was too young and had a silver spoon in my mouth,” Wolman says at lunch. “I was obviously young, but I didn’t correct him even though I certainly never had inherited money.”
The meeting didn’t go well until McNamee walked Wolman out and they passed a billiards table in the center of the fire house.
“Youngsters wouldn’t know anything about an old-timer’s game like billiards,” McNamee said.
“Well, I know a little bit about it,” Wolman countered. “May I?”
With that, Wolman chalked up a cue and confidently placed the 8-ball at the opposite end, calling the shot in the right hand pocket. Sure enough, Wolman sank the shot and banked the cue ball off three walls and back to its original spot.
“Come back next week,” the newly impressed McNamee suggested with a laugh, “and we’ll talk some more.”
McNamee warmed to his new young friend, figuring that if he could attract more than one serious bid for the Eagles the price would drift higher and there would be more profit for him and the Brothers.
But Taxin, Wolman’s rabbi, warned him, “The shareholders are a close-knit group who do favors and look out for each other.” And he added: “Just be careful, you don’t know who’s on whose side.”
There was a handful of bidders but only one other serious group, headed by developer Jack Wolgin, and even though the Brothers had set a price of $4.5 million Wolman and his attorney anticipated that the winning bid would be much higher.
On Dec. 6, 1963 sealed bids were opened in a conference room in the Fidelity Building on south Broad St. And at 4 p.m., Frank McNamee arose and announced that the 36-year-old outsider from Washington had won the bidding with a total of $5.505 million — only because Wolman’s intuition told him to add to his original $5.3 million bid.
Over the shouts of “default” and “objection” from the losers, McNamee said matter-of-factly:
“Jerry Wolman is owner of the Philadelphia Eagles. Good day!”
The kid who waited until halftime to get into the game now owned the game.
JERRY WOLMAN MET Sol Snider in the 1950s, and the two, though a generation apart, hit it off instantly.
Snider was president of a successful Washington area supermarket chain, Food Town, invested in real estate and started Public National Bank, which Wolman’s business patronized and in which Wolman invested.
The two were introduced by Earl Foreman, Wolman’s legal confidant, who was married to Sol’s daughter Phyllis, whose brother was 29-year-old Ed.
Over a period of a year, Ed Snider called Wolman to ask for short-term loans to make payroll for his record company. Wolman agreed each time without a question. Then Ed called Wolman to say he couldn’t repay about $30,000 and asked if he would accept all-but-worthless stock in lieu of payment. Sure, Wolman said.
In the summer of 1963, a distraught Sol Snider telephoned his friend. “Jerry, I’m worried about Eddie,” said Sol, his voice trembling. “He’s very depressed. … If there’s anything you can do to help him, I would consider it a tremendous favor.”
Sol arranged for Jerry to pick up his son at 16th and K Street in Washington, just down the block from Sol’s bank office. When Wolman saw the young Snider standing on the street corner, he was shocked. Ed was unshaven and disheveled.
Wolman confided that he was negotiating to bid on the Eagles, and he promised he’d make room for him somewhere in the organization even though Snider had no experience in sports and very little experience in any business.
Wolman is a believer in menschkeit, a Yiddish expression, which is the unspoken bond of honor between two men — about what happens between the two hands in a handshake. The give and the take is natural, and the loyalty is baked into that bond of honor.
Sol Snider called Jerry that night to thank him profusely and to say he’d never forget the favor.
THE DEAL CLOSED IN February 1964, and Wolman wasted no time taking control of the Eagles, who had very few employees: Vince McNally was the general manager, and the staff consisted of Joe “Jiggs” Donoghue, PR man Ed Hogan, fire chief Frank McNamee, ticket manager Ed Doyle and Jim Gallagher.
“I started working for the Eagles in 1949,” says Gallagher, now 81, over breakfast in Ray’s diner in East Norriton, where the individual juke boxes play music from the ‘60s. “By 1963, we were a tight little group, huddled in a small office at 15th and Locust.”
No one was tighter than McNally.
“We ordered newspapers from around the country,” Gallagher remembers. “Not to see what people were writing but to scout players. I was the personnel guy, and that’s how we did the scouting. ‘Hey, look at the kid from Duke, he might be a good linebacker for us.’ ‘And how about this guy from UCLA?’”
Nick Skorich had coached the Birds the last three seasons and had gone 15-24-2, which wouldn’t cut it.
Wolman interviewed (though not necessarily in this order) Paul Brown, Otto Graham, Allie Sherman and George Allen, the defensive genius of the just crowned NFL champion Chicago Bears. Wolman wanted to hire Allen but was warned off by Bears owner George Halas, who said Allen was not ready. (Halas secretly wanted to keep him at Soldier Field.)
Back to square one, which was located in the NFL offices in Manhattan, where Joe Kuharich was supervisor of officials, waiting until he could get a head coaching job that would erase the stain of his dreadful four-year, 17-23 record as head coach of Notre Dame.
“I probably was influenced a bit by [NFL commissioner Pete] Rozelle,” Wolman admits over lunch. “Joe and Pete went back to the early ‘50s when they were both at the University of San Francisco. And he endorsed him strongly.”
Wolman gave Kuharich a five-year contract at $35,000 a year to be coach and general manager, and Kuharich started sweeping immediately.
First to go was popular quarterback Sonny Jurgensen, traded to the Redskins with free safety Jimmy Carr, a stalwart on the 1960 championship team; then popular receiver Tommy McDonald, another title game star, traded to Dallas. In about two months Kuharich had turned off the Eagle loyalists and severed virtually all ties to the glorious 1960 championship team.
Wolman next moved to bolster his inside team. Close confidante Foreman, who had been his business attorney dating to the mid-195os, would be his right hand, and Wolman apportioned Foreman 48% of the stock, of which Foreman would be given 20% with the rest to be gifted to others at Wolman’s discretion.
True to his promise, Sol Snider’s son Ed was named treasurer, given 7% of the minority shares as well as a handsome salary, generous expense account and use of the company limousine.
When Wolman, Foreman and Snider hosted a party at Bookie’s for the dispirited office staff, which feared for their jobs, Wolman announced that everyone would remain and get raises.
And then he returned the biggest favor of all. He asked John Taxin to step outside, and he handed the man who guided him through the shoals of Philly business the keys to a brand new Rolls-Royce limousine.
It was not unusual for Wolman to lavish gifts on his loyalists, especially those who were down and out. When he took over the Eagles, 68-year-old Jiggs Donoghue had been executive vice president. Wolman reassured him that his job was not only not in jeopardy, but, “I promise you, sir, you’ll have a job here with me for the rest of your life … I can learn a thing or two from an old football man like you.”
Several months later, Donoghue suffered a major stroke and wasn’t able to perform his Eagles duties. Each morning, Wolman had his limousine pick up Donoghue, take him to work and returned him in late afternoon to his home. He remained on the Eagles payroll as long as Wolman owned the team.
The same held true with the car that Wolman gave Foreman and the $83,000 he gave Snider for the down payment on his home.
Unfortunately, the loyalty he bestowed on Snider and Foreman was not returned.
BY THE SUMMER OF 1964, Wolman moved the team’s headquarters to an airy space on the first floor of the Bulletin Building across from 30th Street Station.
Jim Gallagher recalls: “Jerry upgraded everything, from typewriters to desks, telephones, and, importantly to me, our ability to wine and dine writers. Don’t forget, in those days we still had to sell the daily papers on the NFL story.”
Gallagher remembers one day before the Birds were due to play the Redskins in Washington he went to lunch at Duke’s with a local writer. He spotted the Washington Post’s Dave Brady across the room, waved hello and motioned to the captain that he wanted to pick up Brady’s check. The captain shook his head no and pointed in the direction of Wolman, who smiled at Gallagher and mouthed, “Too late, I’ve got it.”
The Eagles began their first season under Wolman with a 38-7 thumping of the New York Giants at Franklin Field. They finished 6-8, better than the 2-10-2 of 1963, and every Sunday there were 60,671 leather-lunged fans in Franklin Field.
And as Wolman’s luck would have it, Rozelle negotiated a new and rich TV deal with CBS, so each team wetted its revenue-sharing beak. Wolman originally budgeted the Birds to lose $250,000 in 1964, but instead turned a $700,000 profit.
The Eagles seemed to be on firm footing, so Wolman plunged back into the real estate development business, which after all was his day job.
Another one of Wolman’s legion of loyalists from Washington, Ted Dailey, had taken a mortgage job in Chicago, and even though Wolman had never been there he headed out for a search for development sites. After an arduous day of looking at mediocre parcels, they stopped at a red light at North Michigan and Delaware Avenues, where a square block site had a fence surrounding it.
This was Chicago’s Magnificent Mile, footsteps to Lake Michigan, right across the street from the prestigious Drake Hotel, next to the Water Tower, and there was an empty lot!
“Who owns that lot?” Wolman asked. “John Mack, and it’s not for sale,” Dailey responded.
Wolman’s gut said be bold, so he called Mack, told him he wanted to buy his lot, to which Mack exclaimed, “Five million dollars, with a half-million deposit and a completed contract within 48 hours.”
“Done, I’ll have your deposit tomorrow,” Wolman all but shouted with glee.
Now Wolman needed to find a suitable tenant for a building he hoped to develop. Wolman had done a boatload of business with John Hancock Mutual Life Insurance in the early 1960s, so he asked Dailey to approach John Hancock with a proposal to buy the parcel and lease it back to him and grant him a loan for $63 million so he could build a signature John Hancock edifice. Dailey was dubious but made the approach, and, wonder of wonders, Hancock agreed to buy the land for $6 million, netting Wolman a cool $1 million profit.
Then, using Bears owner Halas as an intermediary, he met with Richard J. Daley, who by then was 10 years into his 21-year tenure as Chicago’s mayor.
Meeting with mayors had not been Wolman’s favorite activity. He and Philly mayor James Tate got off to a rocky start when Tate tried to bully Wolman into accepting a new multi-purpose stadium built on stilts over the railroad tracks at 30th Street on a non-exclusive basis. Wolman pushed back, winning the day when he held a press conference to denounce Tate’s silly idea. He produced a document signed by Tate that guaranteed the Eagles exclusive stadium rights, an important element in an era when the American Football League was talking about expanding to Philadelphia.
Tate finally gave in and agreed to build a new stadium in South Philadelphia, where Veterans Stadium opened in 1971 with plenty of parking where the 30th Street site would have had very little.
When Wolman met with Daley, he discovered that not all Irish big city mayors are narrow-minded, insecure hacks like Tate.
“Mr. Mayor, I’m new in town, but I love the city and I want to do something great here,” Wolman began as he opened his briefcase and took out a three-dimensional cardboard rendering of the John Hancock Building, which he liked to call “Big John.”
The 5-foot, 7-inch Daley gazed at the 120-story diorama, which was taller than him, and he said, “Go ahead and do it. I think it will be good for the city of Chicago.”
Little did Wolman know at the time, but “Big John” would lead to the unraveling of his $100 million empire.
IN 1966, WOLMAN expanded his sports reach, placing Eagles PR director Hal Freeman in charge of putting together a package to be presented to the NHL Board of Governors, which was looking to create six expansion franchises. And on February 8, 1966, Wolman and Bill Putnam made their presentation before the NHL Board of Governors in New York.
Wolman knew and worked with Putnam on his Washington projects, and Morgan Guaranty Trust was his personal and construction lender on some of them. Putnam was the banker who approved the loan and delivered the $5.5 million check drawn on Morgan Guaranty Trust Wolman used to buy the Eagles. After leaving Morgan in 1965, he moved to Los Angeles to work for Jack Kent Cooke and was instrumental in establishing the NHL’s Kings. It was Putnam who called Wolman and seriously suggested bringing an NHL team to Philly.
“Bill, I have no interest in hockey,” Wolman said, “but I do have an interest in buying a team. Because if Philadelphia wants to qualify as a major league city it must be represented in all major sports.”
The NHL committee was skeptical when Wolman said, “If you give us a conditional franchise, I’ll guarantee that we’ll build an arena within one year’s time that will seat no less than 15,000 people.”
“That’s impossible,” sneered Bruce Norris, from Detroit.
“No it’s not,” said Arthur Wirtz, owner of the Chicago Blackhawks. “He’s building a 100-story building in Chicago. If anyone can build a substantial arena in that time, it’s him.”
The next day, Philly was awarded an NHL franchise. Wolman purchased the team for $2 million, but in accordance with NFL policy, he maintained a minority interest of only 22.5 percent in the hockey club. As was his custom, he gave the remainder of the ownership percentages of the hockey team, as well as the new arena, at no cost to his business associates, mainly Putnam, Snider and Jerome Schiff, another Snider brother-in-law who honchoed the Spectrum’s construction.
By mid-1966, Wolman owned the Eagles, he had bought Connie Mack Stadium and was leasing it to the Phillies; he had just founded and purchased the Flyers; and he was about to develop the arena that would be home to the 76ers and his new ice hockey team.
A few months later, Wolman’s empire was cratering. Cement poured into a caisson at “Big John” had begun sinking, which required a tear down to the tune of $20 million. The economy was also sinking into a recession exacerbated by the cost of the Vietnam War and the tax hikes needed to pay for it.
Within days of the news of “Big John’s” work stoppage, Wolman received a formal letter from Morgan Guaranty and Trust, which financed the Eagles and Flyers, saying, “Dear Mr. Wolman: We hereby make demand for payment in full of your outstanding indebtedness no later than 5 p.m. on Friday,” three days away.
Ted Dailey, Wolman’s loyal friend, found Kuwaiti businessmen who would back him with a $43 million loan on the condition that the hockey team be sold to them.
On Oct. 18, 1967, Snider — whom Wolman had lifted out of the depths of despair and depression four years earlier — refused to sign over his hockey team shares after he had initially agreed to accept $1 million and also keep his position and stock in the Eagles that were given him, so Wolman could save his empire.
A passage from “The World’s Richest Man”:
Every other partner (except Snider, Foreman and Putnam) signed the papers selling their shares, which they had received for free, for fair market value. But when Wolman presented the documentation to Ed Snider, seated in the conference room of the Eagles’ offices, Snider tilted his head away, tightened his lips, and refused to make eye contact with his boss.
“I’m not signing it,” Snider remarked quietly.
“What do you mean?” Wolman asked, almost losing his balance in astonishment.
Snider shook his head. Wolman would play Snider’s crushing next words over and over in his mind for decades: “I want to keep the hockey club,” Snider decreed, then looked up at his mentor.
“But Eddie, you already agreed,” Wolman said in disbelief.
Snider got up to leave.
“Eddie, do you know what you’re doing? It’s not just the hockey club. I could lose everything. I’d be ruined!” pleaded Wolman, gesturing for his partner not to exit the room.
“I’m not the only one who feels this way,” Snider said coldly.
“Eddie,” Jerry said in a last-ditch effort, “if this is about money, we can work something out. …”
“I’m not signing it,” Snider growled. Then he adjusted his glasses and left the room.
Without Snider’s approval, the Kuwaiti financing would vanish and Wolman was staring at bankruptcy. He seethed as Snider — whom he had given a great job with stock in the Eagles and the hockey team and a house — walked past him without saying a word and took the Eagles limo home.
Wolman slowly walked out onto Market St. and hailed a cab headed for Snider’s house. He entered and marched uninterrupted up the steps to Snider’s bathroom, and fired him.
“You can’t fire me,” Snider retorted. “I’ve got a contract.”
“You’re no longer with the Eagles,” the owner shot back. “Don’t come to work tomorrow!” Disgusted, Wolman then left the house his former employee had only obtained with his help.
As expected, Wolman received a phone call from Foreman, his former confidante who also refused to sign the agreement, within the hour, admonishing him, alleging that he didn’t have the authority to dismiss his vice president.
“The last time I checked,” Wolman shouted, “I still own 52 percent of the team, and I can fire whoever I want!”
Snider and Foreman drove to New York the next day to meet with Rozelle in an attempt to reverse Snider’s dismissal. The commissioner was unwilling to intervene, saying the dispute over the firing was a team matter.
Moments after the pair left Rozelle’s office, the commissioner telephoned his friend, Wolman. Rozelle wanted him to know he had fully supported his decision, but warned the owner to be careful with regard to the two men.
Rozelle was prescient. A month later, in November 1967, Wolman had arrived at New York’s JFK Airport, having flown in from Switzerland, where he was trying to arrange new financing to save his empire. He called the Eagles office, got a message that Foreman had called and wanted a meeting immediately at the Locust Club.
He drove to Philly from JFK, thinking that Foreman and Snider might have come to their senses about signing the deal to save his empire.
Not these guys.
Foreman was joined by Snider and Lou Stein, a supermarket chain trust funder who had been part of the group that had lost out to Wolman’s purchase of the Eagles.
He was handed a set of papers to sign so that he could sell the Eagles to the three men for a pittance. “I’m not signing this,” Wolman barked. “I’d never sell the Eagles.”
What he meant was that he would never sell the Eagles to these two, both of whom he had made rich and who had turned their back on him in his moment of need.
By the time Wolman met with a committee of his more than 300 creditors, he told them he had assets of $92 million and liabilities of $85 million, but he needed $7 million quickly.
On the afternoon of December 13, 1967, Wolman filed Chapter XI. Acting against the advice of his attorneys to file under Chapter VII in order to more easily discard his debts, Wolman opted to better protect and benefit his unsecured creditors.
Filing bankruptcy and the publicity it generates is typically not the best way to attract new friends or to retain old ones. Such was not the case for Wolman.
When it became known that Wolman needed $7 million to stave off insolvency, the thousands of people whom he had helped started raising money. Willie Robel, Johnny’s wife, took out an ad in her hometown paper saying: “Jerry Wolman has always helped everybody all his life. Now he needs our help, so let’s help.”
She had raised $1 million in a couple of days when Wolman heard about the effort, and he called and asked her respectfully to stop. He thanked her profusely but told her he couldn’t take the money. The Philly Daily news ran a story about it and Willie said, “It doesn’t surprise me. Jerry is a giver, not a taker.” Wolman then took out an ad in the Shenandoah paper to thank the people for their kindness.
Kids around Philly whom Wolman had helped offered money. Wolman’s kids gathered $18,000. Even Big Bob Brown, the Eagles’ All-Pro tackle, offered to forego his signing bonus of $40,000. Wolman thanked one and all and said, “Thanks, but it won’t do me any good.”
But perhaps nothing meant as much to Wolman as the support and faith his NFL colleagues showed in him, from Rozelle to his fellow owners.
“At halftime of an Eagles-Steelers game right after the news of Jerry’s financial problems broke,” says Jim Heffernan, the Birds’ PR man who later went on to work for Rozelle in New York, “the home team’s treasurer used to get the visiting team the 40 percent cut of the gate receipts. That day owner Steelers owner Art Rooney told Jerry, “Don’t worry about it … get it to me when you can.”
By the fall of 1968, Wolman had been forced to sell his shares of the Flyers to Snider, and was frantically trying to protect his ownership of the Eagles in bankruptcy court. If he were forced to sell, he didn’t want Snider and Foreman swiping his prized asset.
In a hearing in March 1969, Judge Joseph O. Kaiser of U. S. Bankruptcy Court, who was overseeing Wolman’s case, uttered these fateful words: “Is anyone present interested in bidding for the team?”
Wolman heard the familiar voice of his former confidante Foreman, who suggested that he would make a bid and that the Eagles had little or no value since they had deteriorated under Wolman’s “mismanagement” and were worth no more than $4 million. Foreman and Snider were trying to grab the Eagles on the cheap, just as they had attempted to do at the Locust Club in 1967.
“That’s ridiculous,” Wolman shouted. “I feel the Eagles are worth $16 million,” which took the air out of the room and quieted the traitorous Foreman.
“Mr. Wolman, you have 90 days to find someone who will pay that amount.”
Hello, Leonard Tose.
The heir to a trucking company had been one of the 100 Brothers, thanks to an investment his dad had made, and he was also part of the group that lost out to Wolman in December 1963. Tose was a well-tailored and -coifed man about town in a town that had few of them. When he showed up for his meeting with Wolman carrying two bottles of Johnnie Walker Red, Wolman had a pretty good idea that Leonard would bite on the $16 million.
The deal closed on May 1, 1969 for a pro sports record $16.115 million and, by 1970 when he walked out of Bankruptcy Court for the last time, Wolman was virtually broke but most of his creditors had gotten dollar-for-dollar compensation.
The three-year ordeal had taken its toll on Wolman and his beloved wife Anne. She suffered a heart attack in late 1968 and died at the age of 41 in July 1971. Jim Heffernan believes that the stress of her husband’s business collapse contributed to her death. Thousands of mourners attended her funeral in Washington.
IN 1974 WOLMAN MOVED back to Maryland fulltime, in 1985 married Bobbie, a legal secretary he had met in Chicago, and he picked up right where he left off, making a killing in development, going up and down with the vagaries of the business.
Today the Eagles are, according to Forbes magazine, worth $1.2 billion, the Flyers about $275 million. It is impossible to calculate the precise value of the John Hancock Center, which was completed in 1970; estimates range from $750 million to $1.5 billion.
The total is between $2.2 billion and $3 billion.
How would Wolman have done if “Big John” and Foreman and Snider not undermined him? That’s hard to say. Like many entrepreneurs, Wolman goes with his gut and sometimes that leads to bad decisions, such as giving Kuharich and Snider 15-year contracts.
Kuharich was an unmitigated disaster, compiling a 28-41 record in five years as coach and general manager, so alienating the fan base that “Joe Must Go” became the most popular chant at Franklin Field.
Snider has overseen the Flyers from their inception and has only delivered two Stanley Cups in 1974 and 1975, 39 years ago, though the town went wild in 2010 when they unexpectedly made the Cup finals.
Comcast-Spectacor, of which Snider is chairman, owned and ran the Sixers since 1996 before they were sold to Josh Harris in 2012; they made the NBA Finals in 2001 with Allen Iverson playing and Larry Brown coaching, but since then have deteriorated into one of the NBA’s worst franchises with inferior players, second-rate coaches and sinking attendance and diminishing fan interest.
Snider’s stewardship of the Sixers produced the worst record for the longest period in their history, and that includes the period including 9-73 in 1972-73.
Snider did build what is now the Wells Fargo Center, though it took him six years, from 1988 to 1994, to complete, compared to the 15 months it took Wolman to complete the Spectrum, which is being demolished as this issue goes to press.
Wolman hasn’t seen or spoken to Snider since 1970 but the two engaged in a long-distance pissing contest in March 2009 when it was announced that the Spectrum would be demolished.
In a Stan Hochman Daily News column, Snider called the building his “baby” and Wolman responded, “Ed Snider didn’t put a dime into the Spectrum!” Would Snider invite Wolman to the official implosion? “Yeah, if he’s inside the building,” Snider said, to which Wolman responded, “I took him out of the gutter and he fucked me.”
Wolman doesn’t come back to Philly very often, but he did make it here in late June 2010 for a book party at City Hall, attended by scores of former players and friends; and to the Eagles’ home opener against Green Bay, where lots of people waved and shouted, “Thanks for all you did for the Flyers, Eagles and Spectrum,” which “was very gratifying,” Wolman admits.
Even Lindy Snider, Ed’s daughter from his first marriage, approached Wolman at a 2004 Greater Washington Sports Hall of Fame dinner in Rockville, Md., and said, “Thank you so much for being so nice to me when I was a little girl.”
Wolman saw Foreman a year ago at the insistence of the authors of “The World’s Richest Man,” who wanted some closure.
“I didn’t want to do it,” Wolman says, “but I called Earl and he was extremely happy to hear from me. I picked him up, as he has very bad eyesight, and he gave me a royal welcome. After all of the niceties I asked, ‘Earl why did you betray me after all we had been through? Had we stuck together we would still be with the Eagles and who knows what else. What you did to me was unconscionable.’
“His answer was, ‘Ed was my brother-in-law and I had to stick with him for my wife’s sake.’ Essentially the same words he used 43 years ago. I said, ‘Earl because he is your wife’s brother was no excuse to dump me.’”
Why does Wolman have so little animus toward the two men who helped bring down his empire?
“My attitude is rather simple. I had a couple of choices. One would be to become bitter and look for revenge. Had I done so I would not be any better than the people that betrayed me. Two was to go on with my life and keep a sense of humor … I chose the second path, for which I am grateful. I wouldn’t trade places with many of my old friends for all the money in the world. My family is my life … some of the guys that I was associated with have very little if any happiness from their family.”
IN SIFTING THROUGH the bleached bones of the Wolman-Snider relationship, it is easy to draw conclusions based on the documents, newspaper articles and interviews with the principals and others.
I interviewed Wolman for four hours in September, and have exchanged numerous emails and phone conversations with him. I also interviewed about 10 other people who knew him or worked for him. Each person sang his praises.
Snider has been less forthcoming, and his side of the story is addressed in an accompanying article.
When Wolman hit it big in Washington, D. C. real estate and bought the Eagles in 1964, he was 36, and he had only dealt with persons — such as Sol Snider and John Taxin and Frank McNamee and Bill Putnam — who were honest and above board.
He had never encountered the Seven Deadly Sins.
So maybe he was a bit naïve and maybe he went with his gut too much when he trusted Snider and Foreman.
As he often did, Sandy Grady, the greatest columnist in local sports history, put the finest point on Wolman in the Evening Bulletin:
Without Wolman there would be no Spectrum. Without Wolman there would be no NHL hockey team. And without Wolman there would have been no Joe Kuharich and his disastrous regime. So do your own arithmetic. It seems here that Wolman left a helluva lot more in this town than he took out …
In Philadelphia, he was like a chromed electric guitar in a window of 18th century violins.